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Michael Seltzer
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“I believe that the alchemy of light on film informs a kind of content that is not remotely duplicated by electronic imaging systems. These systems transfer information with great precision but a silver gelatin photograph transcends the subject and leads one into much higher levels of content.” I agree with the first, not with the second. I have all along thought there are subtle qualities to film, and traditional prints from film, that digital doesn’t have (and maybe never will). However, to imply that what we now consider traditional techniques produces “higher levels of content” than digital is capable of I think is wrong. New technology always changes the aesthetic, changes what expressions are possible, so something is always lost. But something is usually gained as well. Perhaps tempera painters thought the new oil-based pigments produced paintings of less strength, less visual subtlety. But oil painters went on to produce some decent images. Not tempera, of course, but not bad stuff. It might be valid to say that digital is new enough that we aren’t often producing images imbued with such content… yet (though I think we have some artists producing examples to help show us the way). But to deny that possibility is to privilege an older, more familiar mode—one we can “see” better because we are better trained to see it—over something new. Technology is just a tool, and artists always take what tools are available in a given period to produce art (and if it doesn’t have those “higher levels of content” I’m not sure it is art). At least, I hope so. I am an old film-based photographer myself (practically crocodilian), and resisted the move to digital for a long time, but finally I succumbed. If the implication I find in Mr. Gibson’s statement above were true, then I’d be in trouble, as I still hope to have a chance at producing art (of course, I may be misreading it, for which, if true, I apologize).
Whether or not the series portrays the culture in a positive or negative way overall I don't think is, or ultimately can be, the issue. Clearly there is some difference of opinion about that. And that's the point: it's opinion. Anybody can have any opinion. The issue is a government that throws its citizens in prison (or forced labor camps) based on opinion, or their fear of others' opinions. Free speech is not a universally held virtue; indeed even in countries where it is held as an important right, it not infrequently comes under unwarranted attack. There's nothing new in this, and its not limited to photographers (it's a bit of a cliche' in some poetry circles that in other places, or at other times, it can be dangerous to be a poet). Others have been imprisoned (and likely some are in prison right now) in other places in the world for nothing more than some form of expression their government found too critical, whether they intended criticism or not (how many such people are unknown or now forgotten, I wonder). That doesn't make it any better (in fact, it makes it worse), and I think the outcry against this should be loud and long, though what immediate effect that may have for Akhmedova, for good or ill, is uncertain. Either way, Akhmedova is not alone, and the real issue is not what her photographs portray. BTW, you can see more of the photographs at: http://www.fergana.info/details.php?image_id=1220, about 50 of them.
“Who cares for the material holder of ideas and aesthetics” I do. Don’t get me wrong, I think the content of a book is important, of course (and I probably occupy a middle ground between what Joe suggests and the '50s encased-in-plastic ethic). However I also like books as objects. I like the feel of them, their heft, the way they smell (the strong chemical smell of some modern books, not so much). I like the materials used, the cloths and the papers, especially the less slick papers in nicer (and oddly, cheaper) books. And I like the beauty of the various crafts that make up the bookmaker’s arts. If only the content—the ideas or experience being expressed—mattered, and the artifact created to contain it didn’t matter at all, might that not apply to art as well: Why value a Robert Adams print, or Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry into Brussels”? They are simply the conveyors of ideas. Pass them around until they are destroyed, worn out. Take a photo of them so that can then be passed around when the original is no more. Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but a book as artifact can have as much intrinsic value as any other artistic artifact.
Michael Seltzer is now following The Typepad Team
Dec 31, 2009